The impeded stream is the one that sings

brisbane fog.png

Back when we left for Australia in 2012, I was preparing my dissertation proposal but in all honesty not entirely sure how realistic it was to expect to finish.  I had started a PhD at Tufts several years earlier and had incrementally finished the coursework and the internship and the qualifying review, studying at the table alongside my kids and at times putting school on the back burner for a season or two when my family needed more of my time or when I served in more demanding church callings.  Pursuing this degree was important to me but it was HARD, there were many bids for my time, and often I wasn’t entirely sure why I was putting myself through all of it. 

After the move to Australia, it was particularly difficult to coordinate with my committee from so far away (and, oh, that killer time zone difference!) while working with a set of data on the other side of the world.  I came very close to quitting but as I considered it I felt a quiet but unmistakably insistent nudge to continue.  Even with that reassuring nudge, it was still arduous--in absence of any in-person colleagues or mentors to talk through ideas with me, I had a particularly difficult time articulating my thoughts and formulating my theories into written words, let alone feeling confident about their value once they were there on the page. 

Finally the time came and I headed from Australia to Boston to defend my dissertation. It was a crazy trip--I ended up getting delayed 24 hours in Brisbane due to some flukey, rare fog, which made it a 56-hour journey, my longest ever. Right on the cusp of presenting my research I had an experience that weekend that really felt like a bit of a personal blessing--a small thing, really, but something that felt holy to me. 

The dissertation defense with my committee was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a Monday in June.  I flew out on Friday and attended an inspiring Saturday evening session of stake conference (like a diocese regional meeting of several congregations) with friends in the area where I used to live. The next day I wasn’t entirely sure if I would go back up to stake conference again. I was fully in the throes of jet lag and I reasoned that I had kind of prepaid my church observance the night before. I thought maybe the time would be better spent going over my notes and fine-tuning my presentation for the next morning. Ultimately, on kind of a whim, I decided to go. 

So there I was, fresh off a long journey from Australia, in a congregation that was no longer my own, on the threshold of defending my dissertation. I felt worried and inadequate and unsure but so very relieved and grateful--almost there.  And then. The new presiding stake president (whom I had never met before; he moved in after we left) stood up and began his talk by sharing a personal, tender experience about his own dissertation process, the vulnerabilities he felt, and the poignant questions he asked and answers he received as he tried to complete that challenging goal.

What are the chances of that? I have never heard a dissertation story in church before. Sitting in that congregation, I felt known and comforted and buoyed. I was reminded (as my tear-splashed notes from the talk read) “that when we present our best efforts and include God in our struggles, He can bring light to dark things, brilliance to dull things, divinity to earthly things.” It felt like a benediction.

. . .

Recently I was thinking of this experience and how we serve as blessings in each others' lives. So many people aided my efforts to finish this undertaking. They gently guided me out of the weeds or opened doors when I was pacing anxiously at the threshold. These included big things like G's confidence and go-for-it-ness and my kids' immense enthusiasm for my goals. And small things like drive-by moments of thumbs up and encouragement and check-ins and, yes, these words in a talk given on a not-so-random Sunday.  

If you're spinning your wheels or wandering in the weeds or despairing at creating something you have your heart invested in--a book, a painting, a feeling, a study, a degree, a family, an assignment--I just want to say: dead ends sometimes turn into launching pads. Bewilderment sometimes opens us up just enough to the right questions that we begin to live the answers. Words and glances and snippets sometimes become leaps. The reward is sometimes found, oddly, in the impediments.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go,

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

~Wendell Berry

Virtual mentors and finding your thing

Doesn't everyone dream of packing up and moving to Paris? (Raising my hand and nodding vigorously.) A few years ago Sharon Eubanks decided to do it.  Just like that she quit her job, sold her house, and moved to Paris to find her dreams. Live it vicariously with her in this TED talk where she talks about "slowing down the frantic pace of modern life to find creative energy, purposeful acts, and meaningful relationships." And she realizes in the process that you don't need Paris to get there:

"I'm on a train, it's early spring and I'm looking out the window and I see men and women out in fields and they're getting the ground ready to plant and they're trimming vines and they're getting ready for this great act of faith. They're going to plant. They're going to plant olives and they're going to put in grapes and they're going to have this harvest, which would be later on. As I look at them, I realize: I feel like that. I feel like I'm ready to do some great act of faith where I've kind of thawed out, I've kind of prepared the ground. I'm ready for it. But what is it? What is that thing? And as I thought about that conscious "I'm ready" all of the sudden--you know how the Salt Lake valley gets inversions...and then you wake up the next morning and it's just crystal clear?--it was like that. It was just crystal clear....And it didn't have to do with an exotic place. What it did have to do with was slowing down."

. . .

I have this mental list of virtual, long-distance life mentors. I draw inspiration from their examples and think of them as my pantheon of enlisted advisors, an imaginary council of women (mostly) and men who provide a wide range of inspiring examples to follow and motivation to proceed. Learning about their struggles and paths and processes helps me keep trudging along on mine. Maira Kalman, Madeleine L'Engle, Esther Peterson, Julia Child, Anne Lamott, Anna Quindlen, Catherine Thomas, Brene Brown, Louis Armstrong, Eugene England, Samantha Power, Lowell Bennion, Emma Lou Thayne, Madeleine Albright (the list goes on and on and of course includes people I know in real life, too) all have a seat at the table.

I think Sharon Eubanks might be the newest candidate. She has a really cool and meaningful job as the director of an international humanitarian organization, speaks articulately about my religion's doctrine regarding women, and just seems to be an all-around cool human. 

What about you? Who are your virtual life mentors?

A few good gems

We are officially on summer break in Texas!! Well, my kids finished up school yesterday, but I'm still in NYC helping Maddie find all the best restaurants in her new neighborhood. It's a tough job, but I'm totally up for it.

Maddie and I are off to try to get some last-minute Jimmy Fallon tickets (a very, very, very long shot), but I wanted to share a few good gems I've turned up over the past week. Enjoy!

via  ishandchi

I love everything about this Zoey Murphy dresser. I'm trolling Craigslist for a likely candidate for some striping of my own. Lots of color ideas at ishandchi.

Last weekend I read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I have mixed feelings about the book. I mean, I liked it, but it somehow left me feeling a little deflated . . . in a everything-turns-out-crappy kind of way. BUT . . . it also reminded me of this Slate article about kids at camp -- a place where their essential version of themselves can fully emerge. I'm curious if you would agree.

When her son left for college, this mom dealt with her sadness and anxiety by drawing advice for him. Check it here.

Have you looked into #YesAllWomen? I'm thinking a lot about it as I drop my 19 year-old daughter off in the big city all by her lonesome. Mostly to make myself feel better, I keep saying "You won't run around NYC at night by yourself. Right? RIGHT??" I like how DesignMom talked to her kids about #YesAllWomen.

Billy Collins and Cheerios.


Typography makes me happy. Framing and enlarged book page is genius. I can't find the original post, but I'm thinking Staples engineer prints would work here.

Amen! Have a happy weekend!

The power of grit

As we ramp up to the World Cup's opening ole-ole-ole-ole starting next week, we were really excited to catch a glimpse of a familiar face featured in a Powerade commercial. 

Nico was a talented and, yes, hard-to-miss fixture on the soccer fields in our community back home. He was a fellow student alongside our kids in Concord schools and frequently a ref for Sam's soccer games. But even if we didn't share a hometown, I'm fairly certain we'd still replay the video over and over and find his story--captured from videos his dad filmed over the years--powerful and inspiring.

You only have to glimpse the video a few seconds to see that his parents set an empowering, get-on-with-living-life mentality with no excuses. In an interview with Coca-Cola, Nico said "People usually think I was trying to make a statement by playing soccer with able-bodied people and not giving up, but really...I just love playing soccer." Although he had a prosthetic as a child, when he was 5 he decided to ditch it and use forearm crutches instead as he competed on the soccer field and wrestling mat. At 13, he raised $100,000 for Free Wheelchair Mission and was the first person to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro on crutches (and was invited on Ellen to talk about it). These days he's the youngest player to land a spot on the US national amputee soccer team.

Recent research has posited that a good predictor of future success is not necessarily unending talent but rather a combination of curiosity, character, and grit, or in other words the drive to persist through failures and challenges.  Nico? He's the king of grit.

In another video interview a while ago he said, "Some people when they look in on my life, they think that, oh, what a crappy hand of cards this kid got dealt. I look at it in a totally opposite way. I've got a community that's completely accepted me for the person I am. I have parents who went through all this trouble to find the right mobility device for me after a prosthetic. And I've just, and I've got're not defined by what you have. You're defined by the things you make of what you have."

My kids as Navy SEALs?

When my kids were young, I approached summer break much like a cruise director trying to keep the guests happy and peaceful. I scheduled camps and play groups. I planned activities and quiet times. Sometimes I over-scheduled and the kids were frustrated. Sometimes I allotted too much downtime, which meant squabbles. Of course, all of my well laid plans were pretty much kaput half way into July. Then I reverted to survival of the fittest (and whining to my husband when he came home from work).

Teenage summers are admittedly different. In the face of long, hot, relatively unstructured days I'm getting this carpe diem sort of feeling -- like let's do SOMETHING with these fleeting days of freedom. Let's make memories. Let's stuff these last years at home with goodness and laughter and work. I do love kids working. Makes me feel fuzzy all over.

So here's my current let's-make-the-most-of-summer idea:

Naval Admiral William H. McRaven's commencement address given this year at the University of Texas  (which has been making the rounds on Facebook) is an outstanding and inspirational list of ways young people (and anyone really) can change the world. McRaven takes the lessons he learned from Basic Seal Training and turns them into metaphors for living a successful, world-changing life. Hooyah! Sign me up.

My plan is to take one of McRaven's lessons each week as the basis for a family discussion or activity -- challenging each family member to contemplate and apply that lesson during their week. The first one is easy. Make your bed. Here's what McRaven had to say:

"Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack--rack--that's Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task--mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle hardened SEALs--but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another.

By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter.

If you can't do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed."

I can do that! My kids can do that! And goodness knows we all could use a little more 'sense of accomplishment' in our lives. Read the entire address -- it really gets you excited to make a difference.

On a side note: My family (myself included) is particularly in awe of SEAL training. We've been watching Surviving the Cut on Netflix, which follows different special forces training classes. It's so brutal, but also a fantastic manifestation of the limitless potential of the body and mind.

Humans of Motherhood

In honor of Mother's Day month, we wanted to do something special to acknowledge the collective & individual efforts of mothers around the world to raise good people. Given that we are both huge Humans of New York fans (see here and here), we could think of no better tribute than to take a page from that project--except wordier because we're writers--and present some Humans of Motherhood (HOM).

Because we are. Humans and human. Sometimes we forget to give ourselves--or others--that margin. There really should be a secret handshake, a wink and a fist bump that says "hey, I think you're a great parent, despite your utter conviction some days to the contrary. Despite whatever rotten mistakes your kids make along the way. Despite the shambles of the day around your ankles. Things are going to work out. We're all in this together." (This, by the way, is taken directly from a conversation with Sarah last week.)

Here's to the circle-the-wagons, we're-all-in-this-together club of mothers around the world.

I first met Khuld Alsayyad in junior high in Logan, Utah. Her family moved there for a few years from Iraq while her father earned his master's degree in Engineering from Utah State University. She moved away and I never heard from her again until the magic of Facebook brought us together again early this year and we've resumed our friendship. Trained as an engineer, Khuld now works as a Field Coordinator for the United Nations World Food Programme in Iraq, where she lives with her family. We were chatting yesterday and I couldn't resist asking her for permission to introduce her to you in our Humans of Motherhood series. 


Tell us about your kids. You have two girls, right?

Masar is 10--she's bright and creative. She is the smile of the house; she is our butterfly. She likes building things, doing things from nothing, from carton boxes. Kade is my older girl. She's 18 and is an angel. She's a smart, quiet person who loves music and speaks English fluently. She's fond of Korean culture--Kpop, movies episodes. I installed a satellite dish so she could see South Korean stations. Now she can talk continuously in Korean at home and can text Korean on her mobile, self taught.

What do you love about being a mom? What are your greatest challenges?

I feel so blessed--I want nothing from life, only to see them happy. They are good, obedient girls and have tolerated my not easy job where I travelled continuously from one place to another. At first I took them with me and they changed schools and friends each year. I was blessed by this job but I knew I had to sacrifice stability; my children and my man have accepted this fact and stood by me, never complained. My mother and father and siblings helped constantly. When my husband went out of the country to get a MSc in Biology, we were three years on our own. My brother came every night at 11 p.m. to sleep on our couch so we wouldn't be alone. (It's customary in our culture to not leave the women alone at night. At first I refused the idea but they said we don't want to let people think you're alone.) I am so grateful to them. They are in every breath. We're very close and now they are with me, step by step, cheering me, advising me, daily calls and visits to know how we are doing. I hope I can be a good parent like my mom and dad.

So your biggest challenge is balancing your family and your profession?

Yes, exactly. I'm also very lucky that my husband is very flexible and supportive. When I got this job, some people refused the idea, "working with foreigners" and this kind of talk. But then they saw that their kids were getting school snacks, widows getting help unemployed and displaced people were getting assistance, emergency operations launched as war fired up. I've been able to be a part of that, "an ambassador of assistance in my country," as our country director tells us. I've been very blessed and lucky with my job.  I cannot deny my man's role in all of this. He might just tell me sit home and be satisfied, I'll  bring home the bread. But instead, when I got promoted to a team leading another province, he encouraged me and said "don't refuse a promotion." He was right. I took it.

You sound like a good team. What is your family life like right now?

I've been busy working in another province, it's about 300 miles from home, giving assistance to displaced people from a province where fighting is taking place and flood affected their area. I'm home now with my kids. Masar is taking final exams now and doing excellent (I'm blessed) and Kade is preparing for her final big exams in June. She is studying continuously from morning til night with lunch and dinner breaks (God help her). She is exhausted but this is normal for good students in this grade in Iraq as exams are extremely difficult and the points she gets determine her future. So I'm praying that all this hard work from her won't go in vain. She's a good obedient smart girl. I took a leave from work to stay with her in this difficult time. She called me and said she needs me near so I'm back home cheering her up til she finishes her exams.

Passing exams is not difficult here but making an A is. You must get a 95% to make pharmacy, 96% medical, 90% engineering. To teach her at this stage at school is not good enough for her to make an A so I've been saving for some time. I sold my gold, which Iraqi women must have, to pay for her teachers. It's the least I can do. I wish there is more.

Isn't she remarkable? Thanks, Khuld, for sharing a bit of your life and heart with us. 

We're collecting photos and interviews for some more Humans of Motherhood posts. We've got some good candidates and if you have someone you'd like to nominate or hear about, drop us a line!


Yesterday was my first full day back from Spring Break (topped off by a short trip with Annie). It felt good to put the house in order, make a grocery list, and even run a few errands (normally I detest errand-running). Some of you are still in the throes of winter, so just know that my heart is with you. But here? In Houston? We had a high of 69 -- blue, blue skies and a gentle breeze. In the pool floats a thin layer of yellow pollen. Our red oak grew a whole set of new leaves in the week I was gone. Everything seemed fresh and clean and somehow . . . benevolent. In the favorable light of Spring, I threw back the sun roof, picked up a Sonic drink, and played the music loud. (And yes, I'm sure my kids were embarrassed by my Spring ardor.)

I racked my brain for a way to write SPRING and WIND IN MY HAIR and SUN WARMING MY FACE. But I failed, because I needed to make DINNER, and bake three loaves of banana bread, and get my house cleaned up for a church meeting. 

Also, I'm not Billy Collins. Do you think he has to make dinner?

Spring Fever (from TNYT, April 23, 2011)

Finally, it is time to observe the old ritual
of opening the windows, easily performed
without a shove from any hooded little druids
and no need for a circle of flaming stones.

Yes, the day has arrived to lift the panes
that kept the cold out and the warm in
and gave you a place to stand some days
to watch the snow in its silent descent.

But now a soft, fresh breeze rushes in,
no longer sharpened by the knives of winter
that lately pierced your face
and threatened to shatter your porcelain ears.

A blessing is this new sweet air --
the word zephyr springs to your lips --
that lifts the light curtains
and rejuvenates the room so persuasively

that the oil portrait of your grandfather
appears to be smiling down
from the confines of his heavy frame.
Even the goldfish turns in her round bowl

to face the light from the thrust-open window.
It is spring.
Crocuses break forth. The dogwood trembles.
Persephone touches the earth with her wand.

And there you stand in your blue robe
breathing in the season, filling your lungs
with every bud and blossom,
inhaling every spore and fleck of pollen

until the goldfish leaps into the air
at the sound of your thunderous sneeze.

~Billy Collins